I’m going to play devil’s advocate here, because I think there is something to be learned from looking at a topic from as many angles as possible. Richard Prince recently gained further notoriety when one of the photographs from his Cowboys series sold for 3.4 million US$. These Cowboys, of course, are photographs of other photographs, namely of sections of Marlboro cigarette ads, and that’s where - according to many people - the problem is to be found: Not only is it quite shameless to take a photo of someone else’s work and then pretend it’s one’s own, but it’s even more shameless to sell it for 3.4 million dollars.
The original photographer, Sam Abell, of course is not very amused - and who can blame him?
But then, it’s worthwhile to think about this just a little bit. First of all, it’s important to remember what Richard Prince was after when he did the work. He was not just re-photographing someone’s work for the fun of it. He was very consciously taking images from those cigarette ads, looking for the kind of imagery used in that context: The rugged individual - namely the cowboy - roaming freely with his buddies in the wild and smoking a cigarette. In a sense, what Prince was after was not so much the photographs themselves, but rather what the photographs had come to stand for, even when they were taken out of their context: What most people, to this date, know about that kind of imagery is that it’s the “Marlboro Man”.
In that sense, what Prince did was not to re-photograph one of Sam Abell’s photos, but he re-photographed those of Sam Abell’s photographs that had acquired additional meaning in the minds of millions of people. This might sound like an academic distinction, but in fact it’s quite important: If you went to a country where Marlboro cigarettes and their ads are unknown, do you think a museum in such a country would spend any money on Prince’s work (or on Abell’s work, for that matter)?
And that is, for me, where Prince’s art really starts, even if it’s in principle such a simple idea: By identifying imagery that we are extremely familiar with, by taking it out of its original context, and by then showing us the imagery, only to then have our minds create that “Marlboro Man” thinking that we are so familiar with - that’s the act of art there.
Of course, one could now argue whether it’s good or bad art. I think it’s very good art, many other people will find it to be too obvious or bad art. But regardless of what you think, it’s not just taking some random images, but instead it’s the taking of images that have such a fixed meaning for all of us: That is the art here. (Let’s not forget that saying “Oh, I could do that” is not a very good refutation of a piece of art) That’s why I think that what Prince did is not merely stealing somebody else’s work. It’s not about the work, it’s about the use of the work.
But is that worth 3.4 million dollars? I’m not the person to decide how much money should be paid for pieces of art obviously. And to a certain extent, I can understand Sam Abell’s frustration about Richard Prince making so much money. But then, how much money did the cigarette company make, which also used the photography? Isn’t that also somebody using the photographs and making a lot of money?
Of course, that’s not quite the same, since the cigarette company paid for the photographs (probably not quite 3.4 million US$, I’m assuming). But while the Richard Prince product will be shown in a museum to talk about the use of masculinity in cigarette ads (and to make us question its use), the original photographs were shown on billboards to sell cigarettes. According to this website, “each year, more than 400,000 Americans die from cigarette smoking. In fact, one in every five deaths in the United States is smoking related. Every year, smoking kills more than 276,000 men and 142,000 women.” In contrast, as far as I know people are not known to die from overindulging in looking at art.
Needless to say, there are many different ways to think about Richard Prince’s work and, in particular, the Cowboys. But reducing them to mere “stealing” and/or to someone making a fortune off of somebody else might miss some important points.